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Heartbreak Hotel

Heartbreak Hotel
By: Wendy Wippel

Remember Westboro Baptist Church? Best known for fervent and frequent protests of homosexuality? And all things related, which is pretty much everything that isn’t Westboro Baptist Church? (Even Swedish vacuum cleaners. Don’t ask.) Well, good news. (Maybe.) They finally diversified. Last month, and right here in Memphis. So what did they protest? Elvis.

Yep. Even though the man’s been dead for 36 years. Their crazed rant, released in the guise of a press release, announced their intention to hold that protest at Graceland last May:

“God hates your Idols, so Westboro Baptist Church will picket one of the many major idols of Doomed USA, to wit: Graceland. Former home of Elvis Presley. ALL the evidence suggests that his present home is HELL”.

The rant when on to explain that, though the coroner recorded the cause of death as cardiac arrhythmia–an irregular heartbeat– the real cause of death was a drug overdose. (They record their source for that information as “the Internet”.) But that wasn’t why they were picketing.

Nope, they picketed Graceland because the crowds (and they are huge) at Graceland in early January (birth week in Memphis) and August (death week in Memphis), prove that Elvis is an American Idol. (Which apparently they have plans to picket later this summer.) A real idol. In their words:

“Assuming you do believe that Elvis died, you can visit his grave at Graceland. (YES, gotta worship the rotting carcass of that lecherous, adulterous, pervert and drug addict!)”

They finish with what I guess is the WBC version of a benediction:

“God killed your idol, Elvis. Yep, cause he’s a vengeful God that hates everybody. Israel. Jews. America. Fags. Fag-enablers. (I’m quoting them.) And every other church in America. By name. And He wreaks his revenge on that list every chance He gets. The Boston Marathon bombing? God was responsible: “Here’s a hint — GOD SENT THE BOMBS! How many more terrifying ways will you have the LORD injure and kill your fellow countrymen because you insist on nation-dooming filthy fag marriage?!”

The tragedy of 9/11? According to WBC, we should thank God for that. As well as IEDs (God hates our military, as American soldiers), and the Oklahoma tornados. They thanked God just last week for eleven recent troop deaths, and declared proudly that they were praying for 11,000 more.

The problem, here, obviously, is not that the WBC condemns homosexuality. So does God. It’s not that they also condemn adultery, fornication, and addiction to mind-altering compounds. So does God. The problem is that this group (basically one big extremely dysfunctional family) has issued a virtually endless succession of smugly confident pronouncements of the mind of God. And everybody but them is out of God’s will. Everybody but them is sinful and doomed to eternal judgment. (And they couldn’t be happier about it.) Their bottom line on equal rights for gays, here and abroad?

“For ALL this, God has cursed you with Same Sex Marriage, a thing that will be your final undoing! Praise God!”

Translation: The whole world annihilated and doomed. Praise God.

And that’s pretty much their catechism. A must-have placard at their pickets (up to 6 a day, according to their website, mostly against other churches) sums their doctrinal statement up: “You’re going to hell.”

The way they read the Bible, that means everybody but them.

It’s called legalistic righteousness and the WBC didn’t invent it. Jesus actually talked a lot about this problem. He called the Jews (particularly the Pharisees, Israel’s poster children for legalism), out on it all the time. And with no attempt to sugar-coat it. (Think whitewashed tombs.)

But the Pharisees didn’t have the market cornered on legalism either. Nope. God actually took Israel to task for their legalism in Isaiah, about 700 years before Jesus lived:

“But the word of the Lord was to them, “Precept upon precept, precept upon precept, Line upon line, line upon line, Here a little, there a little,” That they might go and fall backward, and be broken and snared and caught.” (Isaiah 28:13 NIV)

Those of you familiar with Kay Arthur will probably recognize this passage. She based her “Precept” Ministry Bible studies on the idea that mastery of the scriptures is built by studying and ruminating on a section of scripture at a time. I taught ‘Precept’ studies for years, and she’s right. But that’s not what this passage is saying. (As evidenced by the fact that God said that approach to the scriptures caused Israel’s downfall.)

So what does “precept upon precept, line upon line” mean? Precept is the Hebrew word “tsav”, which means command, but (as defined in Hosea 5:11, the only other place the word appears) as the commandments of men, not God. (Specifically, in Hosea, the command of Jeroboam to eschew the required trip to Jerusalem and, instead, to worship idols at Bethel.)

Line is the Hebrew word “qav”, meaning a measuring line or a plumb line. And “Here a little, there a little” is actually the same word twice, “ze eyr”, from a root word meaning “to dwindle”. Which is more than a little interesting when you put it all together.

What God is saying is that this approach to the Scriptures, looking at the Scriptures just for commands, tends to turn into using the Scriptures as a measuring line by which you size yourself up favorably against everybody else. And miss the point.

And that’s exactly what we see with the Pharisees. They alone were righteous. Jesus rebuked them for that attitude all the way through the Gospels. And God took their predecessors to task in Isaiah:

“I have stretched out My hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, according to their own thoughts; 3 A people who provoke Me to anger continually to My face… Who say, ‘Keep to yourself, Do not come near me, For I am holier than you!’ These are smoke in My nostrils. A fire that burns all the day. 6 “Behold, it is written before Me: I will not keep silence, but will repay…therefore I will measure their former work into their bosom.”

Knowledge puffs up. And their attitude came from the way they used the Scriptures.

In Isaiah 28 the “precept” and “line” phrasing, in Hebrew, creates kind of a pun. The verse reads: “The word for them will be “Tsav, tsav, tsav, tsav, qav, qav, qav, qav” –God’s way of saying that their approach to the Scriptures made them meaningless nonsense!

An interpretation confirmed by the fact that, “ze eyr, ze eyr” means to dwindle, dwindle, which is ultimately the effect of the Word becoming nothing more than a plumb line for proving your own legalistic righteousness. It loses so much of its meaning and appeal.

I don’t rush out of work anxious to read Yukon’s owner’s manual.

Isaiah tried to ‘splain it:

“He said,“This is the rest with which You may cause the weary to rest, ”And, “This is the refreshing”; Yet they would not hear. (Isaiah 28:12)

Jesus tried to ‘splain it too:

“You search the Scriptures, for in them you think you have eternal life; and these are they which testify of Me.” (John 5:39)

And that made the Lord’s heart break, His anguish recorded for us in Isaiah:

I have labored in vain,I have spent my strength for nothing and in vain. Isaiah 49:

It made the Father’s heartbreak, recorded for us in Isaiah 53:7-8;

“He was oppressed and afflicted, yet he did not open his mouth; he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,and as a sheep before its shearers is silent, so he did not open his mouth. By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.”

And apparently the significance of that escapes the WBC.

“ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” (Romans 3:24-25)

Grace. A word that, by definition, means not getting what we deserved.

The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Fred Phelps, the pastor of WBC (and an ancestor of practically everybody that goes there), once said that the religious statement that”God loves everybody” is the greatest lie ever told. Uh, no.

Obviously. God so loved the world that He sent grace in human form. And He devises ways to bring each and every lost soul back into their Father’s arm. (II Samuel 14:14) He desires none to be judged, but all to come to redemption through repentance. Repentance through grace, which is, itself, a gift from God.

And, as I think all audience can testify, there ain’t nothing sweeter than grace, and the fact that our job is to share it.)

The goal of our instruction (through the Scriptures) is love. (I Timothy1:5)

Not our own smug legalistic righteousness.

Hey, Westboro, look it up.

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